Thursday, April 20, 2017

Review: Museum of the American Revolution grand opening

Wife with burly frontiersmen at the Museum's opening
It's been a while, but I like to pick up my theme of the intersecting of medievalism with American history whenever I can. Today just happens to be one of those days, because my family and I were quite privileged to attend the grand opening of the new Museum of the American Revolution here in Philadelphia just yesterday. If you're not sure how this relates at all to my blog's theme, be patient. The story of this Museum begins not with yesterday's grand opening on the anniversary of the "shot heard 'round the world", but oddly, with Robert E. Lee and a Gothic revivalist Episcopal priest with a George Washington obsession.

The jewel of the Museum's collection is the very tent General Washington used for his sleeping quarters throughout the War of Independence, at least from 1778 on (along with his slave valet, William Lee, and close confidantes like Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette). It's hard to overstate how significant it was to the Continental Army that Washington slept among them for virtually the entire seven or eight years of the war. During that whole span, he spent only a few days at his home of Mount Vernon. After Washington famously resigned his commission and went home, the tent was carefully packed away and given to the care of Martha Washington's grandson, George Custis. The tent went on to his daughter Mary's care, and then her husband, Robert E. Lee. During the Civil War, Lee's house at Arlington, overlooking the capital city, was seized by the Union Army and converted to a cemetery for soldiers (now Arlington National Cemetery). Mary Lee's enslaved maid, Selina Norris Gray, ensured that the tent and other Washington "relics" were undisturbed by the soldiers who moved into the house. 

The Rev'd C. Herbert Burk

After the war, the Lees sued all the way up to the Supreme Court to get that tent back from the federal government. They eventually did, but their granddaughter, Mary Custis Lee, sold it in 1903 to raise money for widows of Confederate veterans. The buyer was C. Herbert Burk, rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Norristown (which is actually very close to my Ordinariate parish). Aside from his devotion to beauty (All Saints' was the first church in Norristown to have a surpliced choir of men and boys), Burk held a lifelong passion for Revolutionary War history and set upon establishing a mission church on the grounds of Valley Forge, with the dual purpose of becoming a shrine to the memory of the soldiers encamped there in 1777, not to mention a house for his collection of Revolutionary War relics.

The new church was commissioned in the Perpendicular Gothic style of merry ole' England. Not only was the Gothic revival falling out of fashion by the turn of the 20th century, it was considered a highly unusual choice for a site dedicated to Revolutionary War history. Critics attacked Burk for the design, to which he once replied,  "Colonial architecture was Georgian; the men at Valley Forge gave their lives in a struggle against the tyranny of a Georgian King. Why mock their memory by building a Georgian Chapel in their honor?" Today this stands at the Washington Memorial Chapel, one of the most beautiful churches in the entire southeast Pennsylvania region--and where my grandfather-in-law's remains are now buried. More info about it can be read here. But there was still the trouble of displaying the General's tent without it gradually decaying when exposed to the elements. Over the past twenty years, over 500 hours were spent on restoring the tent's fabric, and over $100 million raised to build a museum to house this and other items collected by Rev. Burk. The final fruit of all these labors was unveiled in grand style yesterday.

Burk's pet project realized: the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge
The Chapel from the outside
My family and I arrived around 9:30am, just in time to follow the procession from the front door of Independence Hall in center city Philadelphia to the new Museum, a few blocks away. Each of the thirteen original states sent their own color guard to represent them, starting with Delaware as the first state. Pennsylvania was, of course, represented by our commonwealth's own "household cavalry": the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry. The federal government was represented by the 3rd Infantry Regiment from Washington, DC, also known as the Old Guard: the very same who guard the President, the Tomb of the Unknowns, and perform many other ceremonial duties throughout the capital. (When I was in service, I looked into joining the Old Guard a decade ago now, but fell short of the height requirement.)

The procession lined up at Independence Hall
The First City Troop, a National Guard unit in continuous service since 1774, representing Pennsylvania
We didn't plan on attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony because only 100 seats were offered by lottery and I didn't win the drawing; but at the last minute, an attendant offered some leftover seats and waved us in, with the caveat that we would be seated immediately in front of a large screen, thus unable to actually see any of the speakers except digitally. The roster of speakers included many prominent persons like the Mayor, the Governor, and former Vice President Biden--whom, politics aside, is at least somewhat native to the area and is actually an alumnus of the high school affiliated with my workplace. The two most interesting speakers from what I could hear were David McCullough (the author of 1776, the John Adams biography, and other historical works) and Arthur Raymond Halbritter (head of the Oneida Nation). Daughter #2 had a diaper blowout in the middle of McCullough's speech, so we had to be let inside the Museum even before the ribbon-cutting to take care of the situation. When she grows up, she can officially say her bottom was the very first to be changed in the Museum of the American Revolution's family restroom.

Our seating location during the opening ceremonies (pictured above: David McCullough's speech). Now imagine the dystopian feeling of an ex-Vice President talking to you, but only from behind a screen with his enlarged head looming over you. Something straight out of that old movie Equilibrium with Christian Bale, no?
Daughter #1 screamed through nearly the entirety of Biden's speech because I wouldn't let her pet a mounted policeman's horse, so I can't comment much on what he said. Madame says the highlight of the ceremony by far was Sydney James Harcourt (an original cast member and understudy for the role of Aaron Burr in the Hamilton musical) leading students from the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in a couple of numbers from the production. "This is probably the closest we'll ever get to attending the show itself", said she. The Philadelphia Boys Choir sang something at the end to wrap things up, the ribbon got cut, and then we hung around center city for several hours to wait our turn to enter.

Not my photo--from the Museum's Facebook page

The Museum itself is very spacious and clean (so far). As can be expected, the cafe and gift shop are overpriced. We unfortunately missed the orientation video on the ground floor by lingering too long in the gift shop, and so immediately went upstairs to the showcase. The highlight of the tour, far and away, is the presentation of Washington's tent. You fill into a theater and are treated with a fantastic short video explaining the tent's significance and post-war history, much as I did in this post. At the end, the screen rolls up and the lights come on just enough for you to see that the tent was before your eyes, behind the movie screen, the entire time! That alone is worth the price of admission, and probably deserves to be a rite of passage for every American schoolchild in the country. Thankfully, daughter #1 was exhausted from the day's events thus far and remained asleep throughout.

Washington's tent, also not my photo. You can't really take your own pictures of it there.
The rest of the collection takes you plaque-by-plaque from the French and Indian War to the generation of Revolutionary War veterans in retirement and death. There are many excellently made wax mannequins to dramatically retell the story of independence in every exhibit. Black, native American, and even loyalist/Tory stories are told in a natural way without feeling shoehorned for political correctness's sake. About 3/4ths of the way through the collection, daughter #1 woke up and I had to make a speed-run through the remainder of the trip.

Altogether, though I've already seen Mount Vernon and many other sites of immense Revolutionary War significance, this little Museum was well worth the trip. Madame and I intend to go back, each on our own to take it all in by reading every plaque. I walked away from its doors with a renewed sense of pride in my eight ancestors who fought in the War of Independence in uniform, not to mention a sense that I was picking up the torch with a real sense of ownership, and a mandate to steer this nation in the right direction.

From the Museum's Facebook page, showing the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps

Some other pieces from the collection:

The royal arms, which apparently once hung in the Connecticut legislature
British swords

General Washington's blue sash

A book of religious poems by Phyllis Wheatley: the first-ever book published by an African-American woman

An intricately detailed powder horn depicting Philadelphia's harbor

A wall full of armaments

A French officer's gorget bearing the royal fleur-de-lis

A combination tobacco pipe/tomahawk

A candlestick made for one of Philadelphia's oldest Catholic churches

Mannequins depicting Tarleton's Raiders. A more villainous version of Colonel Tarleton was dramatized by Jason Isaacs in The Patriot (2002).

Long day!


  1. Great overview of the event! The opening really looks grand and full of fun and excitement. The interior of the museum is impressive with valuable pieces enhancing its appeal

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